The Second City Does Arizona, or Close but No Saguaro is pure entertainment. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
It does, however, seem a little strange to see this particular type of entertainment onstage at the Arizona Theatre Company.
This is not a play. It's a series of skits which skewer, send up and celebrate Arizona. Clever, energetic and good-natured, it's one big inside joke, the punch line of which will easily be identified and enjoyed by all those who have spent time here—even part-timers.
From brutal summer heat which makes getting into cars a supreme act of courage, to snowbirds who forget to take water on hikes; from border issues and rancher vigilantes to Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his dedication to pink underwear; and from Gov. Jan Brewer and Sen. John McCain to the ubiquitous and utterly annoying photo-radar phenomenon, we relish recognizing ourselves and the gentle joshing of a life that is peculiarly ours.
The Second City (based in Chicago) is a professional troupe of writers, actors, directors and teachers which has been around for 50 years. Its roots are in improvisation, that wacky fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of performing which relies on actors' creativity, the embrace of unpredictability and the willingness to fail.
We know The Second City as a training ground for some of the most creative comedic performers and writers of the last several decades, many of whom have found their way to Saturday Night Live and beyond. Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Steve Carell and numerous other stars have honed their skills in The Second City's proving ground.
An organization which seems to have grown into a comedy empire, The Second City has also grown up. No longer reliant on raw youthful energy and edginess, the organization has acquired a respectable identity, with numerous troupes featured on cruise ships, in Las Vegas and on stages like that of ATC.
But improvisation is not what you'll find here, as The Second City takes on the foibles, oddities and too-often-outrageous politics of our state. In January, Tom Flanigan and Ed Furman, commissioned by ATC, visited Arizona, talked to a lot of folks about what Arizona was all about, and then set out to experience it for themselves. They ate Sonoran hot dogs, visited an ostrich ranch (you know the one), cruised Fourth Avenue and took in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
They then returned to Chicago and fashioned a script, complete with songs and music. (Wait until you hear the hip-hop tribute to javelinas.) Mix that with director Matt Hovde and a talented cast, and what you get is a fun romp through saguaros and flooded washes and Sheriff Joe's Tent City Gift Shop. Fortunately, it's fun well done.
Ryan Archibald, Amanda Blake Davis, Cody Dove, Lauren Dowden, Martin Garcia and Andel Sudik offer themselves whole-heartedly to this smart silliness. They segue from character to character and scene to scene with rarely a blip. It looks effortless, but it's not. This kind of stuff requires gobs of mental as well as physical energy, a code-red level of concentration and a thorough commitment to fellow cast members. The ensemble unfailingly yields to the material, and we appreciate and enjoy what each actor brings to the piece. In true ensemble fashion, there is no "star."
It's tricky stringing together all of these bits and pieces into an appealing and sensible rhythm, but the transitions between segments are graceful and never impede an effective momentum. The writers and the director also realize that trying to sustain these Arizona-centric jokes for a couple of hours could grow a bit tiresome. So, interspersed are a few bits and pieces of what the program calls "material created by the casts of The Second City." There's some really good stuff, including a bit involving a blow-up doll (or an actor impersonating one); a spelling bee during which the agony of childhood is disturbingly distilled; a couple taking a shower (pantomimed, of course, but done so artfully that we see every "little" detail); and a very funny show-tune-style production number about gay marriage.
Sound and music are key to all these comedic goings-on, and music director and onstage keyboardist Matthew Loren Cohen contributes skillfully. As is the norm for ATC, the set and lighting are fine.
The troupe interacts with the audience and even seeks involvement a couple of times. Although these are partially improvised bits, they rely on a preordained outline. But there are always surprises—and challenges.
The concluding sketch involved choosing an audience member and asking about his occupation.
The selected participant replied, "I'm retired."
Undaunted, the troupe prompted him to declare what his job was when he did work.
"I was an administrator." This was not going swimmingly.
The nonplussed actors persisted. So what did you administer?
"An organization for disturbed children."
With only a hint of a grimace, the troupe launched into a song-and-dance number about Jeffery, the retired administrator of an organization serving troubled youth.
And they made it work. At least they made us laugh—and that, after all, is their work.
The Second City Does Arizona doesn't really feel like an evening at the theater, but it's made-to-order, featherweight, feel-good fun.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.